Wednesday, 30 December 2015

A Finely Tuned Critique of Fine Tuners

It could be said that “intelligent design” is an attempt by creation-oriented apologists at creating a “dog-whistle term”.  By this I mean a term which is understood by insiders as meaning something other than it sounds like and generally not understood to have that meaning by outsiders.  The idea, which didn’t work, was to have a term that (nudge nudge) means “creation science” but doesn’t sound like “creation science” although certainly being understood to mean “god did it” to anyone with a theist agenda.

The people behind “intelligent design” as a term made the error of writing their thinking down in what is known as the Wedge Document.  But even if they hadn’t, it’s pretty damn obvious … so it wasn’t a very good dog-whistle term.

I’m pretty sure that there are no serious biologists out there who are sincerely non-theist and also fully paid-up ID supporters.  The closest we have come to that so far is Bradley Monton, a philosopher who is an avowed atheist but who argues that ID should be taken seriously.  But by taking it seriously though, Monton means something along these lines:

I conclude that ID should not be dismissed on the grounds that it is unscientific; ID should be dismissed on the grounds that the empirical evidence for its claims just isn’t there.

In other words, so far as I can tell, he argues that we can (and should) investigate the knowledge claims of ID using science.  I think I can agree with that.  So long as those involved in the endeavour were intellectually honest, it’d not be a problem.

The problem though is that those who are tightly wedded to ID aren’t intellectually honest, they aren’t interested in any scientific refutation of their claims and those who speak for them simply ignore the fact that their claims have been refuted (here’s a quite recent example of the eye being raised as an example of irreducible complexity).  As a consequence, ID has no place in the science classroom – it might have a place in the philosophy classroom, or the critical thinking classroom.  Since they are already teaching nonsense in the (shudder) theology classroom, I guess they could teach it there as well, so long as it doesn’t get confused with proper science.

To the best of my knowledge there are no biologists who take ID seriously who are not already predisposed to a theistic world view – people such as Michael Behe who are trying to use biology to “prove” the god that they believe in for other reasons.  Serious biologists wouldn’t touch ID with a barge pole.

So, I was thinking that there may be another similar dog-whistle term, perhaps a more successful term, being used in another area of science but not quite so obviously trying to say “god did it” to outsiders as “intelligent design” does.

What about “fine tuning”?  It could be argued that fine tuning of a sort was raised by Thomas Aquinas back in the 15th century, so it’s not a hugely new thing.  However, it does seem to have taken off in the past few decades.  (Intelligent design’s rise in popularity has actually been more recent.)

Could “fine tuning” have become a dog-whistle term?  I guess it depends.

How do scientists come across examples of fine tuning?  And what do they do when they find one?  I would suggest that the answers to these two questions will indicate whether the scientist in question is using the term descriptively or as a dog-whistle.

I’d suggest that proper scientists come across fine tuning as a bi-product of other research.  An example would be dark energy.  Observations of the universe lead to a modification of existing theory, introducing dark energy which acts against gravity, slightly speeding up the expansion of the universe.  Physicists ponder just how much dark energy would be required and conclude that the answer is “not very much”.  In fact, we need very, very little and if we had slightly more, then the universe would have expanded too fast for stars to form, the consequence of which is that life as we know it could not have developed.

Other scientists, however, would be looking for “fine tuning” in much the same way as Behe and his fellow intelligent designers (IDers) look for irreducible complexity.  They aren’t just doing their jobs and stumbling on an example of fine tuning, they are going out of their way to find potential candidates for fine tuning.  A recent article was about such an example (and this article is actually trying to explain why I have what is closely bordering on a fixation with Luke Barnes).  Luke Barnes is searching for fine tuning and this is why I put him in the category of “other scientists”.  Perhaps he may have found some, so the next question is what do scientists do when they find examples of fine tuning?

An intellectually honest scientist will, when discovering something that is unexplained, say something along the lines of “hm, this is interesting, I can’t explain this”.  An intellectually dishonest scientist, particularly one who is a closet theist, will hand over the mystery to people like William Lane Craig and say (nudge nudge): “Here’s another example of fine tuning that cannot be explained”.  For example (in the words of Craig):

This was a summer seminar organized by Dean Zimmerman, a very prominent Christian philosopher at Rutgers University, and Michael Rota who is a professor at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, and sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation paid for graduate students in philosophy and junior faculty who already have their doctorates to come and take the summer seminar at St. Thomas University, then they brought in some faculty to teach it. I was merely one of about four professors that was teaching this seminar on the subject of the fine-tuning argument for God’s existence – the fine-tuning of the universe. Joining me in teaching this were Luke Barnes (who is Professor of Astronomy at the University of Sydney in Australia). We had met Barnes when we were on our Australian speaking tour two years ago. He had introduced himself to me when I was at Sydney University and shared with me one of his papers on fine-tuning. I actually quote him in the debate with Sean Carroll on the fine-tuning issue. So it was great to see Luke again and have his positive scientific input. Then with me was the philosopher Neil Manson who is more skeptical of the argument from fine-tuning. Then David Manley who is a prominent metaphysician who also shared some reservations about the argument. So there were people on opposite sides of this issue, and so we had a very good exchange.

(The tradition at those summer seminars seems to have two people arguing for fine tuning [nudge nudge] and two who are mildly sceptical.  Barnes wasn’t on the sceptical side; he was side by side with Craig.)

To the extent that fine tuning is a real thing, and not just a dog-whistle term meaning “god did it”, it presents an interesting mystery – a puzzle to be solved.  Sadly, a web-search for “fine tuning” produces results which are tipped heavily towards the theistic version, not the puzzle to be solved version.

I don’t think we should give up hope of rationality though.  The more reasonable among us can take the same basic approach as the biologists have with “intelligent design”.  The IDers claim irreducible complexity, and the biologists show how the complexity is not irreducible.  The FTers claim (inexplicable) fine tuning, and untainted physicists show how the fine tuning is not inexplicable.  That was my ham-fisted intent in Is Luke Barnes Even Trying Anymore – Barnes claimed that αG is unnaturally small, making α/αG unnaturally large, and I explained how its value is not unnatural at all but is instead expected.


Note that I did write a comment on Barnes’ blog to this effect, but since the last comment never made it through his filter (and had to be reproduced here), I’d not be surprised to see the same thing happen with this one.  Just in case:

Hi Luke,

I've made comment on your paper here - - but in brief:

Your argument, perhaps taken from Martin Rees is that αG is unnaturally small, making α/αG unnaturally large.  However, this argument resolves down to a question of (in your definition of αG) the relative values of the proton mass and the Planck mass.  Thus it's fundamentally a comment on the fact that the Planck mass is rather large, much much larger than the proton mass (and also the electron mass which is more commonly used to produce αG).

Therefore, what you have overlooked is what the Planck mass is, because what the Planck mass is explains why the Planck mass is so (relatively) huge.  Unlike the Planck length and the Planck time, which both appear to be close to if not beyond the limits of observational measurement, the Planck mass is the mass of a black hole with a Schwarzschild radius in the order of a Planck length (for which the Compton wavelength and the Schwarzschild radius are equal).

If the Planck mass were supposed to have some relation to a quantum mass (ie being close to if not beyond the limits of observational measurement), then you'd have an argument for fine-tuning, but it's not and you don't.

And in any event, 9 orders of magnitude (between 10^-30 and 10^-39) is not a fine-tuned margin.  And that's only if you use the proton mass variant of αG.  If you use the more common definition of the gravitational couple constant, with the electron mass, there are 15 orders of magnitude (between 10^-30 and 10^-45).

I note that you didn't post my last comment (against a different blog post).  I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming that this was an error or oversight on your part.  I posted that comment on my blog, here -



  1. The reason biologists are not interested in ID has to do with orthodoxy and power. The new priests say that life exists by dumb luck, and this dogma raises huge issues, like what exactly does luck or accident really mean? How can we adjudicate this with reason? But, never mind those questions. In fact, forget about them. Just bow down and kiss the ring. The consequences of noncompliance or heresy are ostracism, career suicide, inability to get jobs or funding, and public smear campaigns.

    Personally, I find ID to be irrelevant. If the goal is defending theism, ID is a sideshow. It is the result of an establishment cornering fundamentalists and forcing them to think of newfangled ideas. Theisms stronger defenders are found in the theistic evolution camp. Or, theisms defenders don’t even need to reference the specifics of human origin, i.e. arguments for classical theism.

    On the other hand, FT truly is a problem to naturalists. Enough people are concerning that fine tuning points to an intentional universe to warrant summoning into existence something magical and enchanting, the multiverse. It’s also good for marketing magazines and TV shows because it literally does enchant the general public who find a spiritless universe drab and empty. When brave thinkers pointed out multiverse is pseudoscience, some naturalists responded by arguing we should simply redefine the boundaries of science to include it (more formally, to change the criteria of the demarcation problem in the philosophy of science). This is so curious. Just like fundamentalists were cornered, the staunch naturalists felt cornered by the FT problem. Feel cornered? Just invent a new idea or add new criteria to get the desired result. Anything but move towards a more agnostic position.

    1. Hi ANT,

      I do understand your concerns. It does seem like some scientists are bound by an orthodoxy, but this is a perspective from the outside. All ideas are up for criticism, but this criticism has to be managed so that only the best, most well-informed criticism is responded to. It's a bit pointless to respond reflexively to vaguely worded criticism from the uninformed, even if this upsets the uninformed. (I know this because I have been guilty of such criticism myself - see the all the posts on the Reverse Monty Hall Problem - that was me being uninformed criticising those who were better informed and wasting everyone's time. Perhaps my delving into the Bertrand Paradox is more of the same.)

      What you do err in is your characterisation of multiverse theory. Multiverses just happen to fall out of string theory. They aren't raised to counter theistic fine-tuning. And some scientists claim to have some evidence in support of them, but I think we should be highly skeptical of such claims - particularly since the bulk of scientists are skeptical.

      In any event, FT isn't a problem. It's a puzzle to be solved. When (and if) it is solved, god will simply have retreated one more step into the gaps :)

  2. Dear Neopolitan,

    I hope you don’t mind if I unpack this some. Regarding multiverses, the best case scenario looks like this:
    1. Inflation took place in cosmic history. This is supported by the uniformity of the cosmic microwave background and is considered a successful theory.
    2. Inflation produced an infinite or very large number of bubble universes. Zero observational support. Some physicists say the laws of physics prohibit these observations.
    3. Bubble universes have variable physical constants. Zero observational support. Some argue that string theory (which also has zero observation support) having 10^500 some odd solutions suggests the physical constants can vary by this order.

    Karl Popper is considered an important figure in the philosophy of science. Philosophers of science have long wanted rational means to separate science from pseudoscience. How can we distinguish, say, astrology from astronomy and water divining from seismology? The line between science and pseudoscience is called demarcation, and the problem of separating them is the demarcation problem. Popper’s solution to this problem is the criterion of falsifiability. A theory that is not falsifiable cannot be science. Therefore, according to Popper’s criterion, astrology, water divining, fortune cookies, psychoanalysis, and so on are on equal ground with string theory and multiverse theory because they are all equally unfalsifiable.

    It is arguable that ID is also pseudoscience because there does not seem to be a way to umambiguously falsify the existence of an Intelligent Designer. ID relies heavily on classical design arguments: it gives a strong appearance of design, therefore it was designed. But, how is this much different from: it looks like physical constants could be different, therefore the physical constants can be different.

    We could go on our happy way at this point, but apparently the fine tuning problem bothers some physicists. They have a new answer to the problem: multiverse. Do you doubt me? Listen to this:
    “If you change [physical constants] by relatively small amounts, you end up with a universe that is not fit for life. This seems to suggest that the constants were fine-tuned by the Creator. . . The multiverse picture offers a different explanation. . . Intelligent observers exist only in those rare bubbles in which, by pure chance, the constants happen to be just right for life to evolve.” – Alexander Vilenkin in publication on Arxiv (
    Vilenkin is considered a premiere physicist, and this is published in a science journal, not a philosophy journal. In fact, your pal, William Lane Craig cites the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem as support for the cosmological argument for God. (Side note: Alan Guth was a major architect of inflation theory. Just goes to show that these are heavy weights).

    Again, we could all go our happy way, but the fine tuning problem bothers some naturalists even more. It’s no longer enough to refute the FT argument for God. It’s no longer enough to bring up multiverse as a potential remedy. Some naturalists want to loosen the standards of the philosophy of science to promote multiverse as bona fide science! (i.e.,

    So, fine tuning does not seem to me to be a gap waiting to be filled. Rather it seems to be a legitimate inflection point in the observable, testable universe just like the Big Bang, and self-consciousness that we must make use of in adopting a worldview. And, it will continue to haunt naturalists for years to come.

    1. >Karl Popper is considered an important figure in the philosophy of science. Philosophers of science have long wanted rational means to separate science from pseudoscience. How can we distinguish, say, astrology from astronomy and water divining from seismology?

      Efficacy and accuracy of the claims. Astrology and water diving can be tested and found critically wanting. But yes, falsifiability is good too :)

      However, the theories that you list are in quite different categories, multiverses arise out of string theory and string theory is falsifiable, if any claim it makes is found to be false, the theory gets either binned or revised, depending on the seriousness of the flaw.

      I think you go far too far by suggesting that ID and string theory are in the same league. It would seem (to me) that you are suggesting a grand conspiracy on the part of scientists and naturalists to cover up evidence for god. I don't think that is true at all, if your god left more hard evidence in support of its existence, then it would be part of science. The trouble is that the advance of science appears to be at the cost of claims on the part of god. Troubling for theists, but for atheists ... not so much.

      You go on to suggest that FT will "continue to haunt naturalists for years to come" - again, not true, I doubt that anyone who is a naturalist, including the vast majority of atheists, including strong atheists, would - if your god actually existed - to know that your god existed. The only thing that "haunts" us, perhaps, is that grossly ridiculous arguments are thought by some people to be supported by the limits of our scientific understanding in the area of what is labelled as "fine tuning".

      But then again, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter much really because even completely sincere and justifiable belief by some (how ever many or few of them there are) will not make their god into a reality.


      Just to let you know, multiverses are "theoretical science". The challenge to some is to move it into evidentiary science, which we have been extraordinarily successful with some earlier hypotheses, but there's no guarantee that we'll ever be successful with multiverses and even if we do, it won't put theistic rumblings to bed, because theist will merely claim multiverses as yet more evidence of the supreme power of their god. It's happened before after all.

    2. I'm not suggesting a grand conspiracy theory. Just a small one. :)

      String theory is purely mathematical and have no testable claims at the moment, therefore it is not falsifiable. By Popper's (and mainstream science today) string theory is not science. "Theoretical physics" brushes with varying degrees with bona fide experimentally proven science. That's not to diminish the importance of "theoretical" work. It simply remains important and useful to separate out true science from other pursuits.

      There is a difference between theories like General Relativity and germ theory compared to string theory and multiverse. The former makes GPS satellites work and informs doctors how to treat pneumonia whereas the latter can only enchant a disenchanted population (a role once reserved for religion) and be used to solve the fine tuning problem. Do you see the difference? It's not just real world applications. It's experimental verification -- meaning verified theories are concepts of the mind that truly connect with material reality. That's why, when people try to elevate string theory or multiverse to the level of germ theory (etc.), we need to call this out as pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is not meant to be derogatory, but to call out masqueraders. I.e., you may choose to get "audited" by a scientologist, but don't tell me it's true science.

      FT may trouble some physicists and a handful of naturalists, but if it disappeared overnight, I doubt we would see mass deconversion. Most theists, even those well-aware of the God debate don't live their lives by arguments. It makes no sense to rehearse the fine tuning argument before praying, for example. Religious faith is provisional in a lifelong pursuit of truth, but at some point making the changes that a faith requires itself requires a commitment to seriously believe in God. Arguments serve to open the door. They can also close the door. But, no one actually counts off syllogisms before living their faith.


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